I’m a huge advocate of critique groups and have been a member of one (or more) since 2012. I started off sharing my women’s fiction with a group of like-minded writers. We not only shared our works-in-progress, but we bonded as friends who trusted each other with our precious first drafts.

Before I joined Storyteller Academy in January 2017, I had written out a lot of children’s story ideas. Additionally, I had quite a few unfinished stories. In all my years of writing, I’d only submitted one manuscript (a rhyming story about a rat), which received a heartfelt rejection. Before I submitted the manuscript, I hadn’t showed it to anyone, and looking back I don’t think I followed submission guidelines. I was young and impulsive. And brave!

I knew when I joined Storyteller Academy, the first thing I wanted to do was sign up for a critique group. My other in-person group was for big people stories, I needed one for kid stories. Arree’s critique group coordinator put members from different parts of the country and different time zones in our group. I was on the west coast, while the others were on the east coast.

As with all new critique groups, tons of questions went through my mind before our first meeting. Would we all get along? Would someone be overbearing and try to change our stories? What if they hated my stories? What if they all drew better than I did? What if they all wrote better? What was I getting myself into?

We set up our first meeting, and four of us showed up. Three of us were writers, without much illustrating experience, while the other member was a writer-illustrator. We chatted and got to know each other, and then shared our stories. From the first meeting we bonded, not only as writers of children’s books, but also as friends who trusted each other’s suggestions about our work. All of my concerns melted away, and we connected through our love of storytelling.

Our group, The Picture Bookies, has continued to meet twice a month since our first meeting in January. When I shared my first story, “Cat Can’t Sleep,” with our group, they helped me with pacing and the concept. I knew something wasn’t working but couldn’t put my finger on it. My group helped me see where I could take out parts that didn’t fit and create a more believable main character. With their gentle suggestions, I was able to refine my story, make it tighter, and improve its flow.

Since then, we’ve gone through multiple drafts of others’ work, and we’ve even helped each other craft and rewrite query letters and twitter pitches. We cheered others’ accomplishments and milestones and offered comforting words when rejections showed up. We’ve been there for each other from inspiration to creation to completion and rejection.

So how did four people who had never met form such a bond? We took the time to get to know each other and gain one another’s trust. We shared our stories and spoke honestly to each other as readers, not critics. Because we all wrote and read children’s stories, we instinctively saw what worked and what might not be working. We complemented the best parts and offered suggestions on parts that we felt needed something different. And we always framed it in a positive way, never with harsh or negative feedback. Suggestions were given as we wanted to receive them, with kindness and compassion for the writer and illustrator.

If you’re thinking about joining a critique group but are hesitant, it might help you to see how they work.

Here are a few things critique groups should and should not be:

A critique group is: For honing our craft and to encourage us to become better writers. Our group should nudge us along in our journeys and inspire us to keep writing, especially when we might be stuck or unsure of which direction to take with plot or characters. For our group, knowing that we meet the first and third Thursdays, means we look forward to sharing something. But when life gets in the way of our having something of our own to share, we show up to help and encourage those who do have something.

A critique group is not: For making each other feel bad about what we write or for not writing. It is not a place to come together to rewrite each other’s stories. We are not editors. Or critics. Or someone who extinguishes another person’s dream. We don’t chide each other for stick drawing or imperfect dummies. And we don’t squelch ideas just because we don’t see the big picture. Stories take a while (sometimes years and years) to develop. First ideas and drafts will usually change over the course of weeks and months (and years) of revision. And, most importantly, we don’t take others’ ideas to make our own stories. While ideas are not protected, a critique group’s integrity depends on being able to trust each other with stories in all parts of development.

If you’re on the fence about joining a critique group, jump into one. You won’t regret the decision. With an online community, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone. With a critique group, you have a common group to chat with and share your stories. You will be part of the community and make friends—even if you’re in different parts of the county or world. Then if you attend an event such as a SCBWI convention, you won’t feel all alone. It’s especially fun if your critique group partners are there, too.

Joining a critique group is much more than getting feedback on your work. It’s working with a special group of people who share a common interest and are all working toward a common goal.

Many thanks to my SA critique group, The Picture Bookies. Todd, Leah, and Debbie—you’ve made me a better writer, and I value your friendship more than you know.

Joan Raymond is a writer from California. She enjoys writing in multiple genres, including children’s picture books, middle grade, and women’s fiction. She earned her MA in Creative Writing/English in 2017, is a member of SCBWI, and serves as President of the Writers of Kern where she also leads two critique groups. You can find Joan online at http://joanraymondwriting.com